Friday, December 22, 2006

Shelton McElroy, foster care alumni making changes

Parent-advocate program in Jefferson draws praise -
Goal is to keep families together, cut number of children in state custody
Lexington Herald-Leader, Dec. 20, 2006, pg. B3.

LOUISVILLE -- Shelton McElroy has seen both sides of Kentucky's child-welfare system.As a child, he was placed in foster care. As an adult, he went through the system to resolve a custody dispute with the mother of his 20-month-old daughter.

Now McElroy, 29, is helping other parents negotiate the sometimes-complex child-welfare system. He is one of 18 parent advocates in a year-old pilot project in Jefferson County run by the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

"I'm willing to work with them," he said of other parents. "But they have to be willing."The advocate program uses mainly part-time volunteers to guide parents trying to navigate the requirements of the system.

The project began in January in Louisville with a $50,000 grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
It is drawing praise from state officials, lawmakers and families helped by the advocates.

"This is a wonderful program," said Tom Emberton Jr., the state commissioner of social services.

Emberton said he's working on a plan to expand the number of parent advocates across the state, with the goal of helping keep families together and reducing the growing number of children in state custody.

Recruiting parent advocates is simple: They must have been through the child-welfare system themselves and successfully resolved their cases. Those in drug or alcohol recovery must have been sober for at least a year.

The purpose of the project is to provide parents extra help to regain custody of children removed because of abuse or neglect, "to bridge the gap between parents and social workers," said LaRonda Davis, the coordinator.

Emberton said he plans to use about $350,000 in state funds to create parent advocates in 23 centers statewide where adults attend parenting classes. Most have been directed to attend by a judge or social worker because of neglect or abuse. He said he also intends to find state money to continue the program in Jefferson County when the grant expires next year.

Davis said statistics aren't complete for the 11-month-old project, but preliminary information shows that more children are being reunited with families.

Howard Danzy, a single father who lost custody of his three sons because of alcoholism-related problems, said the parent-advocate program helped save his family.

Danzy said his parent advocate went to court with him, attended meetings of social workers and others involved in his case, and helped him succeed in a recovery program to stop drinking, even going with him to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Knowing his advocate had been through the same thing inspired him, he said. Danzy has regained custody of his sons and is thinking about becoming a parent advocate.

"They brought my life back together," he said.


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